Shortly after noon on a recent Tuesday, novelist Peter Carey was sipping rosé at the Soho Mexican restaurant La
Esquina. When The Observer arrived, a few minutes late for our interview, he asked us to join him in a glass. An afternoon at the cafe was a welcome diversion for the two-time Booker Prize winner—for 1988’s Oscar and Lucinda and 2000’s True History of the Kelly Gang—who is also is a professor in Hunter College’s MFA program.
At Hunter, Mr. Carey has just 12 students, with whom he meets once a week. That way, he said, he has “time to really give them full attention. And then I can do a full day’s work.”
It’s a full day’s work that consists of both writing and research. His new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, which takes as its subject a present-day museum conservator who is grieving a lost love—she happens upon an automaton from the 19th century and is tasked with making it work once again—began as a loose web of ideas but began to cohere around a thesis about technology and its harmful effects. “If you really want to destroy the planet,” he said, “give people the tools to make an internal combustion engine and come back 200 years later and it’s all done.” He wanted to look at a time before science became beholden to corporations and the military.
Scientists falling prey to temptation when it comes to the big bucks offered by corporations isn’t so dissimilar from the temptation novelists face, of selling out, Mr. Carey said, adding that it had never seemed like a danger in his own case. “The only thing that’s ever given me success is doing some weird shit that is not likely to do well. Two people who don’t have sex who make a glass church [in Oscar and Lucinda]. I wrote The Kelly Gang thinking I was committing commercial suicide. So I’m not tempted. But I would like to be tempted, I suppose.”
He hasn’t written a short story “in years” because, he said, “the novel can do the thing I like to do: take a schematic idea and expand outwards,” and in his fiction, that expansion has always translated to a high weirdness quotient—were his characters not so subtly drawn and convincingly driven in their motivations, their whimsical interests, arrived at through research and imagination, would make them too cute by half. In Oscar and Lucinda, his breakthrough novel, the title characters, both compulsive gamblers, meet on a journey to Australia and undertake the construction of a glass church in a remote village. In Jack Maggs, a takeoff on Dickens’s Great Expectations, hypnosis, or “mesmerism,” is treated with great gravity by London’s residents. The original owner of the automaton inThe Chemistry of Tears is on a journey to obtain it for his ailing son—it’s a merger of old-timey aesthetic and genuine sentiment that’s neither steampunk nor treacly.
His novels tend to begin with a single idea or image: in the case of Oscar and Lucinda, the glass church. “I have to go to a period that works with the history. And then I have to get into the technology of that. So I have to go into the past, and it’s amazing what you discover. The strangeness of the past.”
The Chemistry of Tears is divided between the past—through excerpts of the diary of an Englishman who is trying to obtain an automaton in Germany—and the present—a conservator restoring that automaton. “I always think of the past only because of the present,” Mr. Carey said. “I lived in the country where there was this little church by the river and they wanted to tear it down and put thistles there, because no one was interested anymore. I thought that was symbolically appropriate, as we’d torn out the indigenous stories and put Christian stories there, and now there were thistles. So then I have to go back into the past with great trepidation and anxiety.”
That anxiety stems in part from the complications inherent in imagining real lives while using history as a template; if historical novels tend to sacrifice character for incident, Mr. Carey is far from a historical novelist. “I had to imagine what it was like to be an aristocratic child growing up in a château in the period after the Revolution,” he said of his work on Parrot and Olivier in America, his 2010 novel about an Alexis de Tocqueville-like man exploring America with a sidekick. “And that’s sort of a scary task to give yourself. I tend to read around the subject quite a lot, but I don’t start out knowing much about the period.” The novel, a critical success, was intended to be as much about George W. Bush’s presidency as it was about de Tocqueville. “I started writing it around the time of Bush and Rumsfeld. I was getting angrier and angrier and more and more spooked and scared, and I said, ‘de Tocqueville sort of predicted this.’ It was a way for me to engage with America with some sort of authenticity and some sort of right to say what I wanted to say.”
A native of Australia, Mr. Carey, who slightly resembles Michael Caine, has been living in New York for some 22 years, but doesn’t see himself as having dissolved in the melting pot. “New York is filled with people with their hearts in two places,” he said. “It’s sort of what makes New York great. Everybody’s got their stories. One feels very at home in that sort of environment—and I am someone who inhabits two places.” He became familiar with American popular culture during his childhood, but didn’t anticipate certain particularities of the American experience. “When you go down to Nashville and a woman in a Chanel suit asks you, ‘How do you like our music?’—it just gets weirder and weirder. It’s like reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and thinking you understand it, but you don’t understand the degree to which culture grows out of the soil. You see that America’s a weird place. And that’s good. Parrot and Olivier was an attempt to reflect that weirdness back to Americans.” With The Chemistry of Tears he’s taken on another national identity: the novel takes place for the most part in the U.K., with its present-day protagonist surrounded by restrained and cautious Brits.
To his friends, he said, he serves as a “tour guide” to Australian culture, showing off cultural artifacts such as the paintings by Sidney Nolan that inspired his True History of the Kelly Gang. Still, certain cultural artifacts of Australia, like “Waltzing Matilda,” the popular song about the suicide of an itinerant worker, continue to puzzle him. Maybe that is why he prefers to write about outsiders.
“People ask me ‘Why do you write about outsiders’?” he said. “The answer is, ‘Because I do.’ They seem pretty normal to me.”
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